7 Tricks To Finally Master Kanji
If you are learning Japanese, then you are probably struggling with Kanji. After learning Hiragana and Katakana easily, hitting the wall of Kanji can feel a bit like hitting a serious plateau in the progress you were making so easily before.
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way of mastering Kanji. But there are certainly ways to be smart about it! After trying and failing to learn Kanji for years, I have finally found some tactics that genuinely helped me to make quick and lasting progress. Find my seven tips to master Kanji below!
Please note that I have linked some websites and apps in this article. None of these are sponsored or affiliate links and Wasabi makes no profit with these. These are just some genuine recommendations from a fellow learner!
[1 Learn the radicals]
You don’t have to do this right away. It can help to start out learning the most basic Kanji first, but at some point, learning the radicals is something you should stop putting off. Understanding not only what a Kanji means but how it is put together will help you tremendously in learning how to distinguish it from other, similar Kanji and even how to not only read, but write it. Learning radicals is also related to trick number two – but more on that later.
Back when they were first used in China, Kanji were hieroglyphic, meaning that they were depictions of their meanings. Therefore, basic Kanji like 山 or 木 can still be kind of seen as images of what they mean.
(Please excuse my horrendous drawing skills)
That’s why it’s so easy to remember the first few Kanji. But what about something like 親, meaning parents? Much more difficult. But if you remember that it consists of three Kanji: 立, 木, and 見, it becomes easier to remember. It will also be easier to distinguish from similar-looking Kanji, like e.g. 視 or 新.
And if you also learn the meaning of each radical, you can deduct the meaning or create personal mnemonics to remember certain Kanji, which I will get to in the next step.
[2 Use the radicals to create mnemonics]
We already established that looking at the individual radicals making up the character 親 can help you remember and distinguish the Kanji. One other neat trick to remember what a certain Kanji means is to use these radicals to create mnemonics.
In 親, for example, we have three radicals: 立 (to stand), 木 (tree), and 見 (to watch). It may seem a bit far-fetched at first, but I remembered how to write 親 like this: The parent is standing (立) on the tree (木) looking (見) over their child.
Another example of a mnemonic that works well for me is this: I could never distinguish between 投げる, 拾う, 打つ and 指す. All of them start with the radical 手 meaning hand, which makes them look similar. So I decided to use the fact that I know that the first radical is 手 to my advantage. Here are my weird ways of remembering them:
投げる (to throw): 手 (hand) + 殳 (lance)
You take the lance with your hand and throw it. Also the radical ⼏ looks a bit like a throwing curve.
拾う (to pick up, to gather): 手 (hand) + 合 (to come together, to merge)
You use your hands to make things come together.
打つ (to hit): 手 (hand) + 丁 (can be used as a counter for weapons)
You use a weapon in your hands (e.g. a baseball bat, which 丁 kind of looks like) to hit something.
指す (finger, to point): 手 + ⼔ (spoon) + 日 (sun)
You take a spoon in your hands and point it at the sun (the spoon represents your finger).
I know the last one is a little weird, but hey, it worked for me. If you are an expert on radicals you may have noticed that I didn’t break them down completely into radicals, depending on what worked better. The point is that whatever you can come up with (e.g. an image you see in a Kanji, or a meaning derived from its individual parts) will help you remember its meaning and how to read/write it.
Here is a list of all the radicals and their meanings: https://kanjialive.com/214-traditional-kanji-radicals/
[3 Learn vocabulary, not just Kanji]
Another important thing is not to learn Kanji isolated, but combined with vocabulary. While the Kun-reading (the Japanese reading) usually is a standalone reading that works as vocabulary (for example 指す, 指), the On-reading (the Chinese reading) usually doesn’t.
When you are learning the Kanji 指, find a couple of words that use the On-reading. Here are some examples: 指導 (guidance, leadership), 指示 (indication). That way, when you see the Kanji 指 in another word and you forgot how to read it, you can remember other words (much easier to remember than a standalone reading), using their Kanji to derive the meaning. So if you see the word 屈指, you already know the second Kanji will most likely be read as “shi”.
For example, I could never remember the On-reading for 投, which is “tou”. But when I learned that 投 was part of the word 投入 (throwing, investment), I was able to actively recall the reading. It may sound weird at first, but trust me, it will help you so much to not actually just learn Kanji by heart, but to be able to read.
[4 Find a good app to practice]
One other thing that was a game-changer for me was finding a good app that helped me study. Learning Kanji is hard, hard work, and I simply didn’t have the time to sit down after work for hours on end to create my own flashcards or exercises, or even fill them out by hand.
But then I found an app that did everything for me I didn’t have the time to: It came with flashcards with all of the common (! no obsolete readings anymore) ways to read the Kanji, with example vocabulary (again, common words only) and all kinds of exercises scientifically proven to shove information from short-term to long-term memory.
There are a lot of trashy apps out there, so this is something I recommend investing a little money into. I personally use an app called “Kanji Study” which has a 4.9 rating on the Google Play Store:
There may be other apps out there, but this is the one I’m using and that I couldn’t be happier with.
[5 Read Manga/watch Anime with subtitles]
Now, learning and studying are all good and well, but ultimately, you need to use your knowledge to truly wield it. One way to practice reading is Manga, especially if you’re just getting started and maybe even need to get used to Hiragana/Katakana.
Most Manga, especially those aimed at a younger audience, come with a (nearly) full set of Furigana, meaning the reading of most Kanji will be written in small Hiragana signs next to it. Plus, the fact that it comes with pictures will help you understand the meaning even if you are still in your lower-intermediate stages. It becomes even easier if it’s a Manga you already read in your native language. If you are in Japan, you can buy used Manga for a very low cost (and then re-sell them once you’re finished), or you can download electronic versions to read on your generic tablet device.
Watching Anime (or other Japanese TV shows) in Japanese with Japanese subtitles on is another great way to get some extra practice in, but I recommend this to higher intermediate to advanced learners, since doing this isn’t any fun if you end up understanding nothing at all. I tried this too early on into my learning and got bored with it, but recently I picked it up again and now I am enjoying it a lot.
[6 Read children’s books]
Another tip that works best if your Japanese level is at least at a higher intermediate level, although it depends a bit on the book you pick, is to read books for children. Most children’s books, just like Manga, come with Furigana. But what’s even better, most of the time the Furigana are only there the first time a word pops up, and not with subsequent mentions of the same word, training you naturally how to read it. If the word appears again after it hasn’t for a while, the Furigana are there again to remind you of the reading.
One way to make your life easier is to buy an electronic version of the book that comes with a built-in dictionary. Kindle, for example, allows you to download a Japanese-English dictionary, which will give you both the reading and the meaning of any word you select. This works especially well with On-readings, not so much with Kun-readings, but it’s still better than having to consult a separate dictionary every time you want to know what a word means.
[7 Read newspaper articles online]
Last but not least, reading online articles in Japanese is a great way to practice. Reading newspapers in Japanese is one of the toughest things to do and difficult even to highly advanced learners. But if you read articles online, you can start out with simplified articles such as the ones you can find on NHK Web Easy, which come with Furigana and explanations, and point out which words are the names of people, places, or companies.
Start out with NHK Web Easy and then slowly start expanding to other Japanese news outlets when you get tired of the constant Furigana.
Those are my seven tips to master Kanji. Do you have any special methods you utilize to master this most difficult part of learning Japanese? Feel free to share your opinions and study tips in the comment box below!
Correction January 17, 2020 11:02 (JST): An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that the On-reading was the Japanese reading. This has been corrected.